It’s not often these days that an opera finds itself in the middle of a major imbroglio lasting several news cycles — although back in the form’s heyday people often rioted or jeered at controversial productions. But we’ve had a little taste of opera’s heated history this week, since John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer opened at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera, which is playing through November, has drawn protesters, artists, politicians, and Supreme Court justices — not to mention the abstract concepts of political art and free expression — into a major secondary drama. Is it anti-Semitic or fair? Should it be censored or allowed to go on?
Protesters including former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani stood outside the premiere at Lincoln Center demanding the opera cease production and shaming opera-goers, while stalwart attendees included Supreme Court Justice and major opera fan Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The Death of Klinghoffer depicts the events of the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian Liberation Front terrorists in 1985, and the subsequent tragic murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer.
By giving so much airtime, or aria-time if you will, to the hijackers, and by connecting the singular events of that fateful cruise ship to larger historical exiles and grievances, the opera has offended a group, including Klinghoffer’s surviving daughters, who think it’s anti-Semitic and glorifies terrorism. Of course, on the other side, some think the terrorists are portrayed mostly as one-dimensional, racialized bad guys. So in loud voices and with angry slogans, the anti-opera faction has been demanding the Met shut the production down — they already canceled a simulcast under pressure — and some have even demanded that the opera should never be re-mounted, anywhere.
But is the work itself actually that offensive? Over the years, it seems reviews have been mixed, from calling the piece ham-handed and didactic to beautiful and nuanced. The Guardian sent four New Yorkers to see it, and they all had different reactions. Yet not a single one of them thought it was blatantly anti-Semitic, and many found parts of it quite beautiful.
But even this is beside the point. I’d argue even if the production was generally agreed to be borderline offensive it should still be allowed to be performed, provoking calls for discussion and context, not censorship.
Arguably sexist, racist (hello, David Mamet’s plays), even violence-glorifying art exists and is consumed all around us, at Lincoln Center and on basic cable alike. To condemn and censor an opera that depicts terrorists as people because it seemingly endorses them is to say Othello endorses strangling your wife or Tosca is encouraging suicide by means of jumping off of Roman monuments. This is so obvious, but it bears restating: “bad” things and people are often the subject of our greatest works. And seeking to understand them with the dimensionality that only art offers us does not in any way condone them.
The social media chatter and thoughtful essays that have come out of this controversy have made wonderful conversation-starters — and made me realize that opera can still be incredibly relevant (my opera-loving dad will be thrilled to hear this!). Thanks to the din of the protesters, I’m planning on buying a ticket to The Death of Klinghoffer. I don’t want all the noise to drown out the music.